RSS and Gandhi: Finding common ground
In August 2017, 69 years after it was first banned in independent India for its alleged role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) through its think tank Prajna Pravah organised a two-day meeting at Gandhi Darshan, neighbouring Raj Ghat, in the national capital. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was among those present.
Critics of the Sangh fumed at what they saw as insolence to the memory of Gandhi, but the Sangh — accused of mentoring Nathuram Godse, who shot Gandhi in cold blood in the evening of January 30, 1948 — stuck to its argument. Its relationship with Gandhi is wrongly perceived.
Since its first ban was revoked in 1949 (the organisation was banned thrice since Independence, the first in the immediate aftermath of the Mahatma’s assassination), the RSS has tried to disassociate itself from Godse and the Hindu Mahasabha, an organisation established in 1915. Senior functionaries of the RSS contest the claims of those who accuse the ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for being antithetical to Gandhian philosophy.
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According to Shridhar Damle, who has co-authored two books on the RSS with Walter Andersen, including The RSS: A view to the inside, pinning the blame on the RSS for the assassination was a political move. “When the trial [against the assassins] happened in February 1949, Savarkar was acquitted but the other seven who were associated with the Hindu Mahasabha were held guilty; yet it was only the RSS that was banned, not the Hindu Mahasabha. The work that the RSS Svyamasevaks did during partition in Punjab; protection of Hindus that included Jain, Sikh, Arya Samajis, Sanatani, Dalits, Nirahankari etc, bringing Hindus from Pakistan, offering them shelter, created a lot of goodwill for them. The Congress saw the RSS as a political threat. In October 1947 during a conference of chief ministers, a ban on RSS was sought,” he said.
That’s one part of the story. A senior functionary who did not wish to be named said that in 1963, Gandhi found a place in the morning prayers recited by the swayamsevaks (volunteers) because, “Soon after the assassination in 1948, the RSS leadership realised that it cannot debunk or demean Gandhi; because they would lose support from the people.”
Another senior functionary said that the Sangh has kept Gandhi’s legacy alive by focusing on issues that were important to him, such as rural development, cow protection, organic farming and swadeshi economy, among others. Has the RSS then, appropriated the legacy of Gandhi?
“I don’t think the RSS has ever attempted to appropriate Gandhi. They need him to keep the idea of a tolerant Hindu to remain in popular memory so that the violence by Hindus finds justification,” said Ajay Gudavarthy, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He also finds incongruity in the Sangh and the BJP leadership’s stance on Godse. For instance, when Bhopal Member of Parliament Pragya Thakur chose to glorify Godse as a patriot in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party high command including Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned her comments, yet no disciplinary action was taken against her. “The PM will never excuse Pragya Thakur but will take no action…this has been the standard method of the RSS,” Gudavarthy said.
The Sangh for its part draws attention to its little-known ties with Gandhi.
RSS literature is full of references to Gandhi’s interaction with the volunteers at Wardha, his address to the cadre in September 1947, and his conversation with founder KB Hedgewar, as well as his admiration for the absence of caste distinction in shakhas.
Rajya Sabha member and author Rakesh Sinha said the RSS and Gandhi found common ground on key issues. “They agreed on issues related to Indian culture, value system and rejected the European model of economy. The RSS and Gandhi both believed that untouchability or any kind of narrow identity were dangerous to Hindu society and reasons for division,” he said.
Sinha’s assertions are contested by SN Sahu, press secretary to former President K.R.Narayanan. “There is no common ground between the RSS and Gandhi. While Gandhi’s approach towards Hinduism was broad inclusive and constructively critical, the RSS promotes exclusion and hatred in the name of Hinduism. This has been affirmed by none other than Sardar Patel. One should be mindful of the fact that Gandhi also looked at Hinduism critically and pointed out its numerous faults by turning the search light inwards,” Sahu said.